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  • Anne Nisenzon, PhD

Coping through COVID-19, Part One: Sleep

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

stress anxiety insomnia covid-19

I can’t count the number of times I’ve said or heard someone say “Crazy times!” in the past month. We are all striving to find a new normal in an ever changing landscape of rules and norms with COVID-19, making it very tough to fully adjust. All the changes can disrupt health behaviors that we need to cope, making it all even more difficult to manage. In sharing the following blog series on health behaviors to survive these “crazy times”, the goal is to strengthen the foundation of coping and ultimately our ability to face each change with grace and confidence. Let’s start with sleep.

Sleep can be a barometer of our emotional state and is often the first thing to be disrupted when we are really stressed or overwhelmed. With the change in our daily routines, whether it is increased responsibilities in childcare, worry about jobs or finances, or simply losing track of time, our sleep can get totally thrown off schedule. We know that poor sleep quality or quantity can make it harder to function in the short-term and can have a significant impact on health over time. Here are a few things to keep in mind to reduce the impact of the pandemic on your sleep.

1) Try to keep a regular wake up time

While our days (and nights) likely look very different now than they did last year, maintaining a consistent wake up time can help set your circadian rhythm, or internal clock, so your body knows what time it is even if you are not quite sure! The circadian rhythm helps regulate all our biological needs in a 24 hour period so we want it to be on a predictable pattern, especially when there are a lot of things out of our control.

We can help our internal clocks along by setting a regular wake up time, even if morning activities change on a daily basis. It is best to set your wake time to the earliest time you may need to be awake in the week-- for example, for a morning meeting or to help care for a loved one (including caring for yourself!). Yes, you want to keep that wake up time on weekends or mornings with no set obligations! By keeping your wake time consistent throughout the week, your body learns to be alert on a consistent schedule which will in turn help set all other biorhythms, including sleep, on a consistent schedule as well.

2) Get plenty of light during the day

In addition to waking up at the same time every day, getting plenty of light when you are awake is important in setting your circadian rhythm. Since spending time outdoors has become increasingly challenging with the quarantine and social distancing orders, many of us have less exposure to bright natural light. Worse, we are relying on our screens more than ever which can further blur the line between night and day and interrupt our sleep-wake cycles. Purposefully turning on bright lights in the morning or stepping outside for a quick walk when it is sunny helps keep us alert during the day and, in turn, more sleepy at night.

3) Limit news and social media an hour before bed

Many of us are hooked to our tv and phone screens more than ever, trying to stay on top of all the latest recommendations to keep ourselves and our communities safe. While it is important to remain aware of current events, overconsumption of information can lead to anxiety, confusion, and mental and emotional exhaustion. It can also lead to adrenal spikes that greatly affect our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Shutting down news and social media coverage regarding COVID-19 (or anything that amps you up) at least one hour before bed allows our minds and bodies to relax and prepare for sleep. Additionally, keeping screens out of bed has been shown to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and makes bed time a more pleasant and restful experience in general. Trying a relaxation practice, like meditation, dipping into a hot bath, or listening to calming music before bed can also boost sleepiness.

4) Exercise and/or stretch!

Exercise is one of the most effective (and under-utilized) natural antidepressants available. With gyms and parks being closed and our daily routines impacted, regular physical movement may have been dropped from your schedule. However, studies have shown that physical activity increases time spent in deep, restorative sleep, which translates to feeling rested in the morning. Try to find some way to move your body daily, whether it is through stretching, yoga, walking, or dancing around in your living room! Making exercise a priority during the day helps you use up extra energy (including excess nervous energy) and finally rest well at night.

If you have any questions about how to further improve your sleep, or if your schedule is shifted because of COVID-19 and these recommendations don’t quite fit your personal routine, feel free to call 267-540-8583 for a more tailored plan and suggestions. Wishing everyone health and wellness during these “crazy times!”

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